The Ways in Which I Never Thought About My Great-Grandfather: An Essay on the Potentials of Photography as a Historical Document*

Abstract:This paper in on the trail of answering the theoretical question of the potential of photography as a historical source. The paper does not aim for a historical reconstruction in the classical sense but is an attempt to show the reach of this visual media in historical research, based on the correlation of a sample of family photographs, oral history, and theory. By employing the author's “personal voice,” the paper attempts to correlate particularities with a broader context and general theory. The author uses photographs of his great-grandfather, made at a prisoner-of-war camp during the World War II, to show the limitations of photography as a historical source.

Key words:  Photography, World War II, Historiography, Sources, Roland Barthes


Used a lot more often as a primary source or, simply, as a tool of illustration, photography is rarely the subject of theoretical analysis. The theoretical assumptions used in this paper correlate photography with the accompanying text and question the limitations of contextuality, which photography assumes. The terms “recognition” and “excavation” set the border between the capacity of the observer to establish a personal connection to the subject and to come to terms with it as a part of his lived experience and analysis independent from that. Using the example of photographs of his great-grandfather, a prisoner of war during World War II, the author emphasizes the separation between himself – the observer – and the subject (one which implies an emotional connection) that represents a distant object of historical analysis. Correlating the photograph and the accompanying text, the author questions the limits of the context of the visual representations and limits of the factual extraction. By posing new dilemmas and questions, photography has shown its limitations as a provider of definitive answers. A medium that has an undoubted potential to capture an instant, thus, providing a piece of information, is highly limited in its capacity to serve as a tool for narrative building. Eventually, photography is defined within the liminal space between knowledge and the lack thereof.

* This paper is a product of cooperation with Professor Daniel “Danny” James on a course titled Photography and the Historical Archive, held at Indiana University Bloomington during the spring semester of academic year 2019–2020. I owe many thanks to Prof. James for his inspiration and guidance through this endeavor and to my colleague Richard Levi Raber for his comments on my earlier drafts.